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How gaming can rise above its stereotypes | Stanley Pierre-Louis interview


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Games are for nerds. Games are too violent. Games ruin your grades. Games breed toxicity. And only antisocial teenage boys play games.

We’ve all heard the stereotypes, and the Entertainment Software Association’s CEO, Stanley Pierre-Louis, is trying to discredit them as ancient myths. I talked to him about that and the lobbying group’s latest report on the diversity of games and gamers at the Games for Change 2023 event last week in New York.

Happy statistics

Pierre-Louis noted that 65% of all Americans — 212.6 million people — play video games every week. And 59% of Americans have a gaming console at home. There are about as many gamers under 18 (26%) as there are players over 45 (25%). About 46% of players are female, 53% are male, and another 1% choose not to identify or identify in another way.

About 80% of gamers play with others, and 71% say games do a good job of creating welcoming and inclusive environments. The majority of players (88%) agree that games help expand their social circles, and 82% say video games can introduce people to new friends and new relationships. And 76% of U.S. parents play video games with their children. Players believe video games provide mental stimulation (90%) and stress relief (90%) and help improve cognitive skills (88%).

Video game players are more likely to engage regularly in creative hobbies than non-gamers, with 33% participating at least weekly vs. 22% of non-gamers. And 49% agree video games provide physical activity, up from 45% in 2022.

But not all is perfect

Stanley Pierre-Louis
Stanley Pierre-Louis has been at the ESA for over eight years.

These are things we expect Pierre-Louis to say. Pierre-Louis has worked for the ESA for more than eight years and has been president and CEO for more than four years. But I had a chance to probe a bit more into the issues the game industry faces today. He’s the top lobbyist for gaming in the U.S.

But this week’s event showed that games still have a long way to go. In our interview, we hit some of these topics. We discussed the Games for Change 2023 event, including the Games & Sustainable Development Goals event at the United Nations building in New York.

I also asked Pierre-Louis about his views on gaming addiction versus games bringing us together, screen time, dealing with toxicity, AI and gaming, antitrust enforcement in the wake of the pending $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard, and what’s going to happen with the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) event in Los Angeles.

During Games for Change, Pierre-Louis moderated a session with Cynthia Williams, president of Wizards of the Coast, on diversity in gaming. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Stanley Pierre-Louis, CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, speaks at the UN at the Games & SDG Summit.

GamesBeat: You have the new essential facts out. What are some of the impressive things you’ve learned?

Stanley Pierre-Louis: We like to look at the demographics and perceptions around games every year. It gives us a benchmark around where games are in society. We anecdotally see a lot of excitement and engagement in video games, but it’s also good to get some data around that. It was important to us to see where we are, particularly in this post-pandemic moment. Last year we were coming out of the pandemic, and this year it feels like people are actively out of the pandemic. Seeing where we are compared to before and during the pandemic was important.

We found that video games remain a staple of American life. From our perspective, it’s the leading pastime that people have, but also the leading engagement tool we have. A lot of the numbers in our report, just to highlight a few–212.6 million Americans play games. That’s 65% of our population. It spans every age category. Just as many people 45 and over play as under 18. If you look at the racial demographics, they largely track our national demographics with engagement. When you look at gender diversity, you have just about as many women playing as men. There are some numbers that change slightly each year, but essentially it’s a 50-50 split. We’ve seen that consistently over the past few years. Games have been able to reach every demographic in powerful ways.

We’ve also seen, in our reporting and the reporting of others like the AARP, the growth of gaming among people over 50. We see intergenerational play with people over 65. We’re seeing this growth of games that connects people in powerful and unique ways. We’re excited about that trend continuing.

Reaching the United Nations

Games for Change's Games & SDG Summit took place at the UN building in New York.
Games for Change’s Games & SDG Summit took place at the UN building in New York.

GamesBeat: We’re here at Games for Change. You spoke at the U.N. yesterday. Is that a first for reaching some very important people?

Pierre-Louis: One of the great things about games is the reach that it has to every population around the world. The United Nations clearly sees that there’s an opportunity for the audience that games serve to also receive messaging on important world goals. They have a lot of sustainability goals, goals for empowerment of people from different regions of the world that are suffering from war or poverty or gender inequity. Games can serve as a helpful platform to solve some of those inequities. It’s gratifying to know that other communities are seeing games as a platform to not only speak and address those issues, but also to use games as a solution.

A lot of developers are thinking about those problems from a social good standpoint. That’s what makes the Games for Change conference so unique. You’re bringing the triple-A studios along with smaller developers who are thinking about the good that games can do. It’s certainly gratifying for an organization like the United Nations to not only invite, but embrace the video game community as part of its solution kit. It was a lot of fun just being on their grounds and knowing what the U.N. represents and where games stand on helping them reach their goals.

Leo Olebe (left) of YouTube Gaming with Dr Lupo.
Leo Olebe (left) of YouTube Gaming with Dr Lupo.

GamesBeat: It was interesting to hear DrLupo and Jeff Burrell from Riot and Sam Barratt all saying that the way to reach people is through games, and that gamers have shown that they care about these causes.

Pierre-Louis: Even in this last talk where Cynthia Williams was talking about the philanthropic work that Hasbro Gaming and Wizards of the Coast have been doing–gamers give. When they’re passionate about something they give of their time. They give of their treasure. They give of their celebrity, all for the good of humanity. It’s powerful and heartwarming to see that the community cares.

GamesBeat: These numbers are so strong. Do they also help with any political aims that the industry still pursues? Can they help toward goals that you haven’t yet achieved?

Pierre-Louis: At ESA, serving as the voice and advocate for the industry includes, in large part, working with government officials to understand the power and scope of games. We love talking about the economic power that games bring, because that speaks to how we create family-sustaining jobs through the work we create, and the wonderful, amazing workforce that makes these games. We love talking about the social good that games do, because it speaks to how games can benefit our larger societal goals.

At a conference like Games for Change we also get to see in action some of the developmental aspects of games, whether it’s educational or social well-being. The games being described on stage and in the festival itself exemplify not just the good, but the power that games bring to healing, to education, to connection. It’s the core of those games.

Addiction or mental aid?

The Jed Foundation panel at Games for Change 2023.
The Jed Foundation panel at Games for Change 2023.

GamesBeat: Where do you think we stand on that duality that people feel about games? They can be for good and they can bring people together, solve loneliness and all that, but also have the downsides of addiction and other possible harms.

Pierre-Louis: Well, a lot of what we’re seeing is that as people learn more about the positive aspects of games, the more they appreciate the benefits and work behind the games to alleviate those issues. A lot of the negative talk was based on stereotypes and old tropes. As people think about the modern examples of what games do, they’re excited about the possibilities.

We still have to address the stereotypes, but as more and more people experience the positive aspects of play and of games–sometimes it’s as simple as asking someone, “Does anyone in your household or your circle play games?” If 65% of people in the United States play games, there’s someone in your circle who plays games. When you start the conversation there, it changes the tenor of the rest of that conversation. Whether it’s a spouse, a child, a close friend, they’ve seen the positive impact, particularly in light of the pandemic. People saw the power of games to connect with friends, family, loved ones. Games took on a different meaning. Even some of our harshest critics were encouraging people to play games during the pandemic. Now, coming out of it, they’re not blaming games for some of the social ills they did before.

For us, many times it’s a question of how we differentiate ourselves from a lot of the tech policies being proposed that don’t focus on games, but may bring us in through broad language. A lot of what we do is trying to help differentiate the concerns they have over some of the areas of tech today with what games do. When you’re playing a game, you’re part of a community. That means something. It’s very different from some of the more public aspects of what people do online.

Screen time

Teens get upset when parents limit their screen time.
Teens get upset when parents limit their screen time.

GamesBeat: The criticism about games has perhaps evolved in a different way from all of the harms people used to talk about, and to something more like screen time.

Pierre-Louis: I think what happened previously is, when people thought about screen time, they were able to focus their gaze on games. That allowed us to redefine their understanding of games, and now it’s shifting back and saying, “What are the real issues?” We all spent two years or more on screens. So what does screen time mean when your life outside of your home was on a screen? You began to see that screen time is not about quantity, but quality, about the engagement and what it means. If there’s good coming out of it–if you’re attending a birthday party online because it’s the only way to connect with friends in another part of the world, even another part of your city during the pandemic, you had to think in more nuanced terms. That provided the games industry the opportunity to shine a light on why game engagement is different from other types of screen time.

Toxic culture

GamesBeat: I had a chat with Leo Olebe about our last event about how games and Hollywood were elevating games into a higher stratum than they’ve ever been. But he was still concerned about the culture of games elevating upward when it’s still not really fixed as far as he would like it to be. It still has toxicity. It still has diversity issues. The industry itself needs more diversity. As we elevate gaming into this higher level, is there a way to fix the culture?

Pierre-Louis: Leo has his finger on the pulse of what we need to be thinking about as an industry. He’s so smart. He’s one of those folks who puts his energy behind improving the whole culture of games. I’m excited about anything he does in the gaming sphere. One of the distinguishing features of our industry is that we talk about the issues. We don’t run from them. These can be really tough problems to tackle for a number of reasons. But even saying it out loud is a distinguishing characteristic of our industry. We’re intentional about wanting to address–whether it’s toxicity, diversity in the workforce, making sure games represent the players who play them in their characters, we’re talking about it. That leads to it becoming an important catalyzing moment.

In the talk just now with Cynthia [Williams, president of Wizards of the Coast], she talked about how, within her company, when they think about hiring, they ensure that they market in the right way to broad communities, ensuring that the language doesn’t deter people from wanting to even apply for a role. The interview panels are diverse. That way you get different perspectives about what people thought about a candidate. More and more we see companies in the industry look at issues like, “Are we only hiring from institutions where we went? Or are we broadening that to other institutions where games are beginning to flourish, where talent exists that we haven’t tapped into?”

It’s a key step that we’re talking about it. You’re seeing action behind that. Now we need to figure out how we get results. All these companies are also competing for talent. As an industry, we want to elevate that issue and make sure that we’re improving on it. How do you make sure that you’re growing the supply side? We need to grow the talent pool so that there are more opportunities for people to engage. You grow it by investing in it, but you also grow it by broadening your perspective on what it means to work at a video game company.

Generative AI and games

Stanley Pierre-Louis of the ESA with Cynthia Williams of Wizards of the Coast.
Stanley Pierre-Louis of the ESA with Cynthia Williams of Wizards of the Coast.

GamesBeat: These are long-standing issues, but what do you think also about the issue that just rocketed right to the top for everyone, around artificial intelligence? AI and games, everybody’s concerned about it or thinking about it or worried about it.

Pierre-Louis: It’s interesting. The video game industry has been engaging with AI for many years, whether it’s been in non-playable characters or other aspects of gameplay. It’s a different debate than the generative AI issue that’s rocketed up recently. It’s important for us to ensure that policymakers understand the difference in how AI has been used, so that what we’re doing to enhance engagement and gameplay doesn’t get confused with generative AI.

On the generative AI side, what I’ve seen industry leaders say is, AI will help, but not replace the important work that our workforce is doing. How do we get AI to help out with the drudgery of the work? There’s work you do and then there’s a lot of backfill within it. How do you use AI to speed up the process so that the creative minds have more mind space to create? That’s what I’ve been seeing in the leaders talking about it. There’s a lot unsettled in where generative AI is going, how it’s going to be used, the IP laws around it, just a lot of conversation and a lot of rules still to be written.

GamesBeat: What’s a way of looking at some of the patterns we see with things like blockchain for games, the gaming metaverse, and now generative AI? These hype waves keep coming and hitting games. Sometimes you don’t know what the real effect will be.

Pierre-Louis: Video game companies will do what works. Really, what works is what the consumers adopt and engage with. When NFTs were the primary piece of the conversation, there was a lot of tumult within some communities about it, but now we’re seeing NFTs activated in different ways. There’s going to be some experimentation around how it fits into gameplay. The most important thing in any of the mechanics of games is how it impacts gameplay. Does it excite people? Does it engage them? Is it seamless? When it enhances gameplay, it gets adopted.

Whether it’s blockchain, the metaverse, whatever catchphrase of the day is rocketing to the top of the charts, it has to be a seamless and enhancing experience for the player. We’re going to see a lot of experimentation. Some of this will take a while to roll out. Some of it may not work the way that companies think it will work, but they’ll know because the consumer reaction, the engagement of players, will let them know.

E3’s future

PlayStation won't show up at E3.
E3 did not happen at all in 2023.

GamesBeat: A lot of us miss all the conversations we used to have at E3 about all of these things. What’s your latest update about what we’ll see happen with things like E3?

Pierre-Louis: We were certainly disappointed to not be able to present E3 in 2023. We’re working with our partners to look at what the future holds. We’re excited about the possibilities, but we want to make sure that we bring it back in the right way. We want to ensure that we’re meeting the current needs of how companies want to market their games, products, devices. E3 is such a special brand and a special moment and event for the community. We want to make sure that when it’s presented, it’s done in the right way. We continue to have those conversations. We’ll be excited to share news when we have it.

GamesBeat: There were reports that E3 will not use the Los Angeles convention center in 2024-2025. Is that correct? If so, what’s happening?

Pierre-Louis: Neither ESA nor ReedPop communicated a change in plans. We are having conversations with members now on future E3s and I’ll sure more with you as soon as possible. 

Activision Blizzard

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II will feature Ghost.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II will feature Ghost.

GamesBeat: What did you think when you watched some of your members have very different opinions about the Activision Blizzard acquisition? You have different parties within gaming with very different positions on antitrust enforcement and how it affects the game industry.

Pierre-Louis: The latest news I saw was that there was an agreement signed with Sony. We really don’t speak to acquisitions and mergers and the like within the industry. We monitor it the same way that everyone else does. I’m excited to see what the future holds.

GamesBeat: It hasn’t really elevated to the level of, say, needing to form some kind of policy around things like antitrust and platforms, what influence platforms can have?

Pierre-Louis: I haven’t seen that in any policy circles. There’s been a broader conversation around enforcement tactics, but not around reforms so far as I can see.

Democratizing gaming knowledge

Alan Gershenfeld, president of E-Line Media, won the Hall of Change Award at Games for Change 2023.
Alan Gershenfeld, president of E-Line Media, won the Hall of Change Award at Games for Change 2023.

GamesBeat: Any other big issues you want to talk about today?

Pierre-Louis: We were excited by the release of our recent essential facts report. It provides us with not only a milestone, a benchmark for where the video game industry is, but it’s an important talking point for policymakers, for media, and for the global audience of games to understand where we are. It’s important that everyone has the same facts, the same information.

It’s just as important, from my perspective, to have a lobbyist know how to convey the strength of our industry to a policymaker as it is for a player to speak out at a local PTA meeting when someone talks about games. Democratizing those facts is critically important. We have to convert people who don’t know, and we have to provide validation for those who do, but don’t have the data.

There’s something that happens when we talk about the facts that we’ve uncovered to an audience of novices in games versus people who have been in games. For those who are entrenched within the video game community, there’s a lot of head-nodding. The facts speak to the lives they live. With people who haven’t played in the space, but who have been prone to stereotypes, they begin to realize quickly that the facts we’re revealing reflect those in their lives and all around them. It’s an important moment not only for the work we do, but to help the community form a basis for making the case, stating the case when it’s most critical.

We can’t be everywhere, but everyone can be an advocate for games. Given the scale and scope of our community, we can all be advocates for what we’re doing. It’s reflected not only in the data, but in the fact that the United Nations views us as an important platform to talk about social good, enhancing education, and fixing world problems.

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